City secures major federal transit grant

Money will pay for improvements to I-35W  

In just two years, traffic along several major transportation corridors in Minneapolis could be moving much more smoothly.

A $133 million federal grant will fund improvements to transit along Interstate 35W heading into Downtown and measures to increase the number of buses able to travel along Marquette and 2nd avenues.

The grant, which the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) applied for months ago, will allow the city to jump-start several of the initiatives in its recently approved 10-year transportation plan. However, the money cannot be used for the reconstruction of the I-35W Bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River.

One of the key elements of the project would convert the current bus-only shoulder lanes on I-35W from 46th Street into Downtown into what is essentially a bus rapid transit (BRT) lane. Carpoolers could also use the lane during peak traffic hours, as could single-occupant vehicles willing to pay a toll via a system similar to that on I-394.

Another key element of the project would expand the bus-only lanes from one to two lanes on Marquette and 2nd avenues Downtown. The additional lane allows buses to pass each other and would enable three times the number of buses to travel through Downtown.

The grant would also fund other measures, such as purchasing more buses, constructing additional park-and-ride facilities in the suburbs, and encouraging telecommuting. It would also fund converting the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on 35W from 66th Street in Richfield to Burnsville Parkway in Burnsville to toll lanes. When the Crosstown project is complete in 2010, it will feature toll lanes along the stretch between 46th Street and 66th Street.

Federal guidelines require projects funded by the grant to be completed by the end of 2009, a timeline that would move things at a rapid pace compared to other transportation projects.

Mayor R.T. Rybak said he spent time lobbying federal officials including President George W. Bush and U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters for the grant. The mayor called it one of the city’s most important transportation investments, noting that city and county officials all the way from Minneapolis to Lakeville started working together several years ago and agreed that getting BRT and a toll lane along I-35W is essential to easing congestion.

“One of the things that’s important about this is that it shows what can happen when you stop focusing on what we don’t want on 35W and start figuring out what we agree is our vision,” Rybak said.

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward), whose ward is split by I-35W, said the grant is a good step toward improved transit, but she cautioned that there is still plenty of work to do.

“There are some gaps in this implementation, and there are some major issues that still need to be addressed,” Glidden said.

One catch is that the federal government requires the grant money be matched by more than $56 million in local funds, according to MnDOT Freeway Operations Engineer Brian Kary. Several million dollars will likely be expected to come from the city, Rybak said. MnDOT still has to work out where all of the matching funds will come from, Kary said.

Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B) also noted that the Legislature needs to consent to adding more toll lanes to the state’s roads. While Hornstein supports congestion pricing — the term MnDOT uses to describe the toll lanes — he said there could be a concern in getting a majority of the House to support the measure. The grant requires the Legislature to provide the authority needed to implement the plan within 90 days following the opening of the 2008 legislative session.

“This is a little unique because it requires a fairly substantive policy change,” Hornstein said.

Another significant catch is that the grant only provides funding to implement BRT and toll lanes on the northbound side of I-35W. MnDOT had originally planned for the southbound side to have those transit options as well, but it was scrapped when the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) requested scaled-back plans. According to a letter MnDOT send to the USDOT in July, the decision was made to nix BRT and toll lanes because the completed Crosstown project will add an additional southbound lane at 46th Street. That additional lane will relocate traffic farther downstream, according to the letter, and MnDOT officials reasoned it would make the benefits of a southbound toll lane
“negligible.”

Officials also have some work to do yet in figuring out how the project funded by this grant — dubbed the Urban Partnership Agreement — will affect other projects and motorists on several major traffic arteries. MnDOT hasn’t clarified how the construction for this project will interface with the Crosstown project, which is scheduled for completion in 2010. Reconfiguring Marquette and 2nd avenues will also pose transportation headaches for Downtown residents and workers, especially since the construction will likely take place during the Republican National Convention that will be held in the Twin Cities next fall.

“It’s going to mean some dislocation Downtown as we completely redo two major streets,” Rybak said.

Yet the mayor said while the construction will require patience and some of the other details of the grant have to be ironed out, the grant is crucial in that it allows the city to begin taking some fairly significant steps toward improved transportation. Rybak’s vision for Marquette and 2nd avenues by the end of 2009 includes wider sidewalks, better bus shelters, two lanes of buses and less idling and exhaust. Increased bus service along those two avenues will also allow the city to take the first step in getting more buses off Nicollet Avenue, which as part of the city’s 10-year transportation plan will eventually have only hybrid buses running on it.

“We’re going to, in two years, have a dramatically better situation,” Rybak said.

Reach Kari VanDerVeen at [email protected] or 436-4373.